One of the many heinous things that United States government did to the Native population in an attempt to utterly annihilate it through the fragmentation of culture and community was seizing Native children from their families and deliberately placing them in white homes, where they were supposed to be raised to assimilate. This went hand in hand with other practices designed to strip Native children of their heritage and culture, such as the myriad of ‘schools‘ founded on the ‘kill the Indian, save the man’ philosophy, where children were forced to learn ‘citizenship’ at the cost of their own language and culture. In many ways, the government succeeded, despite the best efforts of Native advocates, and the legacy of these actions is still reverberating today.
Yet, many white people seem surprised to learn that these things are not in the past; they’re still going on in the present, and this is something that people need to be engaging with and talking about, because Native communities are fighting hard to preserve their culture from the constant assault of white US society. Making the mistake of believing that seizure of Native children lies in the past and never happens now thanks to the Indian Child Welfare Act (1978) means that people can divorce themselves of responsibility for following the current situation for Native children in the US.
Recently, the Rosebud and Oglala Sioux tribes filed suit in South Dakota to protest child welfare issues, particularly involving the removal of Native children from their homes in the wake of abuse allegations. Obviously, agencies charged with child welfare have a mandate and need to protect children, and accusations of abuse should be taken seriously, but in Indian country, the way the rules are applied appears to be highly unequal, and it’s very prejudiced against Native families.
Many are not allowed to hear the evidence against them, to cross-examine, and introduce their own evidence. Hearings are often so brief as to be effectively meaningless, even though they have a profound effect on the lives of children and families; when a child is seized from a home and placed in the foster care system, that sets of a chain reaction of events with massive repercussions. This is not a time to be making mistakes, and indeed, the US government claims that it wants to prioritise the health and safety of children during such hearings, but often doesn’t act in a manner consistent with that claim.
Tribal members argue (and statistics support them) that this is happening to Indian children much more than children of other races, clearly indicative of bias; Native kids are overrepresented in family court, which is suggestive of an abuse of state power. Once in the system, they can be trapped there for months or years, with families struggling to see their children at all, let alone regain custody. Meanwhile, those children are growing up, changing, and evolving outside the family unit and the tribal community, separated from their culture and heritage in a way that that the ICWA is allegedly supposed to prevent.
South Dakota in particular has a documented problem with this very issue. Despite the law, children seized from their families after short hearings and cursory investigations are being placed in nonNative, mostly white, group homes and residential placements, with hundreds in foster care every year separated from their families and communities. Rather than responding to concerns from Native welfare advocates both in and out of the state, South Dakota appears to be doubling down; the state just doesn’t seem to care when it comes to complying with the basics of the law. After all, why should it; significant violations of the ICWA have been documented in over 30 US states.
9 out of 10 Native foster children in South Dakota is placed in a white home. Even more revoltingly, when children report abuse, including molestation, to child welfare officials, the response is not to get those children out of a dangerous home environment and place them somewhere safe—like with a Native family, or back in their own homes—but to pressure those children in an attempt to get them to recant their complaints. Something is deeply, deeply wrong with this system. Native children can be seized at the drop of a hat from their own families when complaints are made, but when the complaints are against white people, suddenly no one’s interested?
Make no mistake; South Dakota and other states are still exercising white imperialism, and they’re attempting to stamp out Native culture and society. They may not be passing out smallpox-infected blankets, but they are forcibly removing Native children and enacting scores of policies that directly harm the Native community, and are largely structured to do just that. The crisis with Native foster care not just in South Dakota but in the US as a whole requires urgent, concerted action, not neglect and disinterest, just as the larger foster care system is in critical need of reform.
The days of seizing Native children from their homes, taking them far from their families, and placing them in white homes where they’re raised in a way that deprives them of cultural enrichment are not in the past. The idea of ‘killing the Indian’ is far from gone, and many states continue to actively endorse it as part of their official policy, no matter what the federal law might say, and no matter how hard tribal activists and indigenous rights group fight the removal of children, the abstraction of culture, the devastation of not just individual families but communities as a whole.